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Parliamentary Privilege in Australia

Updated: Oct 24, 2023

Parliamentary privilege is a set of legal rights and immunities that protect Members of Parliament (MPs) and parliamentary staff from legal action for their actions in the course of their parliamentary duties. The privilege was adopted in Australia from the British Bill of Rights. These privileges are designed to allow MPs to speak freely and without fear of reprisal and to ensure that Parliament can function effectively without interference from the courts.

The Australian House of Representatives with the text "Parliamentary Privilege" foregrounded.

Types of Parliamentary Privilege

There are two main types of parliamentary privilege:

  • Privileges of freedom of speech: This privilege protects MPs from being sued for defamation or other legal action for anything they say in Parliament. This privilege is absolute, which means that it cannot be limited by the courts.

  • Privileges of process: These privileges protect the integrity of Parliament's procedures and processes. They include the right to compel witnesses to appear before Parliament, the right to produce documents to Parliament, and the right to punish those who obstruct Parliament's work.

Use of Parliamentary Privilege

Parliamentary privilege is used by MPs on a regular basis. For example, MPs often use their privilege of freedom of speech to speak out about controversial issues without fear of reprisal. MPs also use their privilege of process to compel witnesses to appear before Parliament and to produce documents.

Notable examples of the privilege being used include Andrew Wilkie's allegations the Hillsong Church had been engaged in money laundering and tax evasion, senator Bill Heffernan's accusation that high court justice Michael Kirby had used tax-payer funded vehicles to source male prostitutes, and Nick Xenophon's labelling of The Church of Scientology as a "criminal organisation."

“I have relied on it on many occasions to give voice to whistleblowers on a range of issues...It’s a very important, powerful mechanism, and I think a very important part of our democratic system as long as it’s used responsibly...It’s very powerful...It mustn’t be misused, you can’t abuse it."

Sources & Further Reading

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